Monday, December 05, 2005

"Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion"

Note: That is not my quote. It is the title of the article excerpted below by Polly Toynbee in the British paper, the Guardian.

Children won't get the Christian subtext, but unbelievers should keep a sickbag handy during Disney's new epic, writes Polly Toynbee

Narnia is a strange blend of magic, myth and Christianity, some of it brilliantly fantastical and richly imaginative, some (the clunking allegory) toe-curlingly, cringingly awful.

Disney is deliberately promoting this film to the religious - it has appointed Outreach, an evangelical publisher, to promote the Christian message behind the movie in British churches. The Christian radio station Premier is urging churches to hold services on the theme of The Gospel According to Narnia. Even the Methodists have written a special Narnia-themed service. And a Kent parish is giving away £10,000 worth of film tickets to single-parent families. (Are the children of single mothers in special need of the word?)

Disney may come to regret this alliance with Christians, at least on this side of the Atlantic. For all the enthusiasm of the churches, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ bombed in Britain and warehouses are stuffed with unsold DVDs of that stomach-churner. There are too few practising Christians in the empty pews of this most secular nation to pack cinemas.

Most British children will be utterly clueless about any message beyond the age-old mythic battle between good and evil. Most of the fairy story works as well as any Norse saga, pagan legend or modern fantasy, so only the minority who are familiar with Christian iconography will see Jesus in the lion. After all, 43% of people in Britain in a recent poll couldn't say what Easter celebrated. Among the young - apart from those in faith schools - that number must be considerably higher. Ask art galleries: they now have to write the story of every religious painting on the label as people no longer know what "agony in the garden", "deposition", "transfiguration" or "ascension" mean. This may be regrettable cultural ignorance, but it means Aslan will stay just a lion to most movie-goers.

All the same, children may puzzle over the lion and ask embarrassing questions.
Embarrassing to whom?

This Christ-lion willingly lays down his life, submitting himself to be bound, thrashed and humiliated by the white witch, allowing his golden mane to be cut and himself to be slaughtered on the sacrificial stone table: it cracks in sympathetic agony and his body goes missing. The two girls lay down their heads and weep, Magdalene and Mary-like. Be warned, the film lingers long and lovingly over all this.

Here's the kicker of the article.

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart. Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus's holy head every day that you don't eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told. So the resurrected Aslan gives Edmund a long, life-changing talking-to high up on the rocks out of our earshot. When the poor boy comes back down with the sacred lion's breath upon him he is transformed unrecognisably into a Stepford brother, well and truly purged.

It sounds like this author's problems are more with the Christianity that has been practiced toward her than anything else.

Tolkien hated Narnia: the two dons may have shared the same love of unquestioning feudal power, with worlds of obedient plebs and inferior folk eager to bend at the knee to any passing superior white persons - even children; both their fantasy worlds and their Christianity assumes that rigid hierarchy of power - lord of lords, king of kings, prince of peace to be worshipped and adored. But Tolkien disliked Lewis's bully-pulpit.

I haven't seen scholarship that indicates this. Does anyone else know of anything that would lend to this interpretation?

Over the years, others have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman - he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials - has called Narnia "one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read".

Why? Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peel in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis's view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis's earth.

OK. I agree with a lot of her writing here, except that I don't believe Lewis would agree with Peel (sic). I also agree with the depicition of Jesus as a Lamb, but it doesn't negate his position as the lion as well. And hey, it's an allegory. It's going to be limited in the very nature of its scope. Oh yeah, it's also a children's book. It's going to be simplistic.

However, I have found Philip Pullman's mentions of Narnia to be mean spirited and putting forth hatred of the work that he accuses the work itself of having.

Lewis said he hoped the book would soften-up religious reflexes and "make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life". Holiness drenches the Chronicles. When, in the book, the children first hear someone say, mysteriously, "Aslan is on the move", he writes: "Now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had enormous meaning ..." So Lewis weaves his dreams to invade children's minds with Christian iconography that is part fairytale wonder and joy - but heavily laden with guilt, blame, sacrifice and a suffering that is dark with emotional sadism.

"Emotional sadism"? I guess maybe growing up Christian, I'm blind to that.

Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass. Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan.

I truly think that this writer has exposed some real problems in Christianity, if what she interprets Christianity to be were what Christianity really was. She also seems to think that humans without any religious guidance would find the goodness in themselves and pursue that. I think human history has proven that just as wrong as history has proven that those who use religion and Jesus for power are just as wrong.

I don't mind this author having the opinions she has. And I'll grant that my criticisms of her writing are as based in my own context and belief as her criticisms of TLTWATW are. What strikes me is that her bias is so strong that she can't see the goodness in the story of sacrifice and victory over evil and wants to persuade others against it.

Read the whole article and not just the excerpts I've picked out. Am I reading too much into this? Am I being overly critical because Narnia was as integral to my childhood as Star Wars was?


Tony Arnold said...

God truly works in mysterious ways and all things do work for His glory.

"Children won't get the Christian subtext...Most British children will be utterly clueless about any message beyond the age-old mythic battle between good and evil."

Thanks to the writer, non-Christians may now look a little deeper while watching.

And the writer unwittingly illuminates the point while rejecting it. And, her vitriol writing enhances the sacrificial and gentle sentiment of the story.

"This Christ-lion willingly lays down his life, submitting himself to be bound, thrashed and humiliated by the white witch, allowing his golden mane to be cut and himself to be slaughtered on the sacrificial stone table: it cracks in sympathetic agony and his body goes missing...Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? "

The article is like running into the darkness with a bright spotlight and telling everyone, "look how horrible and bright this light is! Painful and despicable, this light is!"

On another ironic note, what will the Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell camps being saying about Disney now? You know Disney that homosexual supporting company?


Tony Arnold said...

Sorry for another comment, but reading the entire article, she says Lewis was converted by Tolkien. I have never heard this account of Lewis's conversion and I don't recall it in Lewis's Surprised by Joy

Anyone else surprised by this?


Phil said...

Tony, I have actually read that in a couple of places.

It didn't surprise me at all.

Tony Arnold said...

I researched this after posting (should have done it before). On the night before Lewis accepted Christ (at about 3:00 am) he had a long talk with Tolkien and his other literary coherts in one of their regular get togethers. And they all had been challenging him. Leaving alone, Lewis could not sleep and spent hours thinking through all his life experiences and finally came to a conclusiion.

So her facts are wrong and distorted, including Tolkien hating Narnia. Tolkien stated he disliked allegory and this was in response to comment on Lord of the Rings, not Narnia.


Anonymous said...

Tolkien was critical of Narnia. He didn't like the heavy handedness of the allegory and thought it may have been a misuse of the genre. But much of his criticism has to be taken in context of the Inklings relationship. Much of their (often drunken) banter was to rip each other's writings up.

Tolkien always insisted the Lord of the Rings was NOT allegorical. It was his intention for it to be received as pure fantasy and it seems he thought Jack Lewis should have taken the same tact as well.

judy thomas said...

Philip Pullman is just jealous because Lewis sold more books than he(by the way, Pullman writes fanasy too--but it is Godless). Sounds like the UK could use some missionaries.

Anonymous said...

From the USA TODAY today.

"In fact, [Lewis' stepson] says, Lewis' friend J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy) discouraged Lewis from publishing Wardrobe because he was convinced that people would laugh at him."

Beaner said...

What's great about 'Narnia' is this: You can't talk about Jesus in the public schools, but a teacher CAN read 'Narnia'. It's planting seeds.

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